An Ode To The Plastic Axe – The Stairway To Heavenly Music Games

I was in my early double digit years, way before you become a real teen and start realising all the ch-ch-ch-changes, back when you’re just trying to figure out how you might fit into your new school. It’s so long ago now that my memory has faded those bits. But what I do remember was being in Toys’R’Us on a summer’s day during my school holidays, and doing what I always did, which was going over to the games section and looking at what consoles they had demos on. I vaguely remember seeing the PS2 booth bit set up with a game I didn’t recognise all too well (I had briefly seen screenshots of Guitar Hero back in Official Playstation 2 Magazine back in their little page feature on relatively unknown games to look out for), and a plastic guitar controller sticking out rather than the usual PS2 controller. I distinctly remember the first song I played on there, which was Bad Religion’s Infected. I got really into that song actually for a little while because it just stuck with me after playing it, but that’s beside the point. The point is, I was hooked. This little demo booth had got me hooked on the whole idea of picking up a guitar controller, ignoring how much of a pillock you look, and jamming out to your heart’s content on Guitar Hero.

It’s kind of difficult to accurately state how much rhythm games have had an influence on my life. And I say that as someone who hasn’t gone into game development, and decided to play the drums after he got into Guitar Hero. But genuinely, the amount of things in my life that I can look back to and just think “Actually, Guitar Hero or Rock Band probably influenced that in some way”, it is genuinely pretty astounding. Not only have those games had a huge effect on my gaming tastes and what I’ve spent gaming money on and not only have those games had a huge effect on my music taste, those games had a huge effect on how my social life has been as a teenager and adult. Where other people cite games like Halo and Elder Scrolls and Civilization as sets of games that have changed them and affected them as they’ve grown up, I sit here, proud of what music games have done to me.

It was my 12th birthday, so back in 2006, and it was the summer holidays after my first year at secondary school. I’d made some friends, like most kids do, and while I wasn’t the coolest of the bunch, I fit in alright. They all came round and we were all trying to play Guitar Hero, back before any of us had much time on it or were any good; I was the best of the bunch and I still struggled on the second to last set of songs on Easy. There we all were, struggling away at playing Crossroads, which seemed like some insurmountable peak then, and in comes my older cousin, who played the guitar, and he just sailed through the song and got maybe 3 or 4 stars, and we were all stood there in amazement at this act. And I knew then that I had to get better, I had to be able to play better. Those games probably didn’t help my competitive edge, more than likely.

Fast forward to after the release of Guitar Hero 2, wherever that sat on the timeline of my youth. I was sat in my computer chair, feet up on the desk under my bunk bed, getting through the final set of songs at Stonehenge on Medium. I’d just about managed to get through songs like Institutionalized (still don’t like how difficult that song is, fucking Suicidal Tendencies) and Hangar 18 (I do quite like that song, some nice solos if you can get through them), and here it came, the final encore track. Screen flashes up with the same message as usual “Are you sure you want to play this?” or whatever it said; I said yes, then came another question asking if I was sure, so I said yes again, and there were quite a few pop-ups. All pretty justified if you’re finally going to go the full hog and play Freebird. As normally happens with music games, I think I just entered a bit of a flow state, but that song felt endless and my hands killed afterwards. It was a hell of a way to spend Christmas Eve as a teen.

Right now, while I write this article, I’m listening to a band that Harmonix introduced to me through the Rock Band 3 soundtrack (Golden Earring for note; I absolutely love playing Radar Love on RB3), and before this, I was listening to an album that has a song I loved on Lego Rock Band (The Passenger by Iggy Pop), and my most recent musical obsession has spun out of both hearing one song when I was a kid and hearing a couple of songs in music games (The White Stripes, Blue Orchid is on Guitar Hero 5 (I know, not Harmonix, whatever) and The Hardest Button To Button is on RB3). And that’s ignoring all the other bands and songs and albums that Guitar Hero has pushed me towards; back before I owned the first one, I was just listening to whatever indie music was coming on the radio and just gravitating towards that, but after Guitar Hero (and a little-known documentary the BBC made called Seven Ages of Rock) my music taste suddenly developed all these different bands and songs I’d never heard before that I now loved. Yes, that included David Bowie and Black Sabbath. Yes, I was raised in a weird household where I learnt UB40 songs instead of classic rock songs. (Yes, I didn’t really listen to the Beatles properly until I eventually picked up Beatles Rock Band a few years ago).

One of my good school friends had downloaded the demo for Guitar Hero 3 on his 360, back in 2007 I think, before it came out, and he’d gotten alright at playing it on the controller. We’d played Guitar Hero on my PS2 before, but this was the first time one of my friends was really considering getting one of the games for themselves; he’d pre-ordered it and everything. I went to stay over at his the night that the game released so I could be there to leech his game experience (I couldn’t get the game until at least Christmas, and I was only going to end up with it on the ol’ SD Wii) and see how the game was. I don’t really remember how most of the evening went, other than I think it might have been the first time I watched Team America: World Police, but I do remember having these feelings of not wanting to sleep at night or go back to sleep in the morning because this game was so good and I couldn’t bear the idea of us not playing it to the end. Looking back, Guitar Hero 3 isn’t really that fantastic or anything, considering its main standout point is that it’s the most difficult on average (in my opinion) of all the Harmonix and Neversoft music games, but its just another case where that game helped me develop as a teenager.

The final kind of developments I can really kind of solidly remember coming from music games are from my lengthy time playing Rock Band 2. I mean, I loved Rock Band for the fact that they let me rock out with the bass and the drums (good practice for a drummer after all), but the thing that really sticks with me from the Rock Band games is how good they are to play with other people. And not just in person either. Some of my best memories of playing games online come from way back in my early days of being an online person, when I used to hang out with a couple of American dudes on Saturday nights, staying up late because I was a cool teen, and playing Rock Band 2 excessively with them. Not only was I amazed by how good everyone was (everyone I played with was hitting like 95%+ at least on Expert consistently no matter what, and I did alright on Hard/Expert vocals), but also the fact that we used to sit and joke on mic between songs and stuff. It was a genuine little band-family unit that we had, even if it only happened at this one time a week and was very much fluid depending on who could come play. Those times genuinely are some of my first great memories of playing games online, and it probably did help set me up for this fluid online social life that I now have.

Don’t get me wrong though, Rock Band 2 and 3 have also been major additions to my social life in person. I’m sure that without Rock Band 3, and some of the DLC that I have for it (thank you, Total Eclipse of the Heart), I wouldn’t have some of my favourite stupid drunken nights and memories from doing my A Levels and going to university. And so, it is with that final little memory note, that I say, to Harmonix, to Activision now that Neversoft is no more, to Ubisoft with Rocksmith, to anyone that has considered a rhythm game a project they want to do; I will always be here for these games. As long as I can keep my plastic axes, and my plastic drums, and my microphone in a workable state, and as long as I can keep hold of all these music games for my PS2 and my PS3, I won’t let the genre go. I don’t need a Rock Band 4 (I’d love one though, so get to it please), or a Guitar Hero 7, because I’ve had my fine run with these games, and I’ve loved it, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Note: I also love DJ Hero 1 and 2, they’re fantastic games. I own Guitar Hero 1,2,3,4,5,6 and Rock Band 1,2,3, Beatles and LEGO across my PS2 and PS3. Also, I own Guitar Hero 4 on PC. Which is a terrible port. Don’t ever buy into the novelty of that unless you need a cheap PS3 guitar because its the same exact guitar.

Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.



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